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by Thomas L. Greenbaum
How often do we researchers take time to reflect on our work and identify the key lessons that might be useful to others in the profession or considering entering it? I have spent most of the last 15 years moderating focus groups on a wide variety of topics for more than 300 different organizations. As a result, I have learned some important lessons about focus groups that I want to share: 1. You never can do too much planning for a focus group. The effort put into advanced planning for a group always pays out in terms of the overall quality of the output from the process. This includes such things as the most appropriate recruitment parameters, the content and flow of the discussion guide and the "external stimuli" that are used to elicit reactions from the participants. 2. Manage the recruitment process actively to be sure to get the right people in the groups. Despite the good intentions of recruitment organizations throughout the country, the moderator has the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the respondents. Because the quality of the output from focus groups depends on having the right people in the room, I decided years ago to invest in a full-time field professional to focus on this aspect. This enables me to concentrate on the actual focus group process, including developing the moderator guide, moderating groups and writing effective reports. 3. Don’t prejudge the participants based on physical appearance.
I have found that the appearance of the people in the groups generally has little relationship to how effective they can be as participants. Further, a participant’s not having a great deal of formal education does not mean he or she does not have a great deal to say about a key topic being evaluated. Clearly it is easier to conduct and watch focus groups comprised of attractive, articulate, educated people. But it is vital to realize that these characteristics are not necessarily critical to gathering useful information. 4. The best focus group moderators bring objectivity and expertise in the process to a project. Specific product knowledge should not be an important criteria in selecting a moderator because a well-trained professional will take the time needed to learn enough about the topic being discussed to be an effective facilitator. An effective moderator must be able to draw people out in a group environment, listen well, interpret the results of the sessions and communicate those results effectively to the clients. 5. Achieving research objectives does not guarantee a successful focus group project. Some clients only view groups that educate and entertain as an effective research tool. Others have different research objectives that must be accommodated before they will feel the process was a success. These could include such things as the decor and comfort of the focus group facilities and the presentation of personally selected gourmet food for the client observers.
An effective moderator must be aware of these factors to have a satisfied client who will return. 6. The moderator and the client should coordinate their efforts at all stages of the process for the research to achieve its objectives. For the moderator, this includes obtaining client input to the discussion guide and working with client organizations to develop the most effective external stimuli. It also means regular communication between the moderator and the client observers who are watching a group from behind the one-way mirror. This should take the form of face-to-face discussions at regular intervals during the group, rather than random notes being sent into the room at the whim of a backroom observer. Client observers need to be briefed about the most effective way to work with the moderator so that during the focus group session, minimal time is spent communicating the maximum amount of information. 7. Most client organizations conduct more focus groups than are necessary to achieve the research objectives. It is not unusual for an organization to do eight, 10 or 12 groups in a series when four or six would be
adequate. There is no sure way to determine the optimal number of groups in a research program, but I generally find relatively few differences by geographic area. So, I encourage clients to conduct as few sessions as makes them comfortable, with the caveat that it is always possible to conduct more if necessary. 8. One of the most important services a moderator can provide is a fast report turnaround. Because of the subjective nature of focus groups, it is common for different client observers to leave with different interpretations of the most important information that emerged. By giving the client organization a full report within three to five days after the group, the people who attended the sessions quickly gain the benefit of the moderator’s perspective so they can identify what they do and do not agree with. In addition, each of the observers can use the moderator’s report to determine the common areas of agreement and disagreement. This is particularly important, as the ultimate findings and conclusions from the research will be distributed throughout the organization. 9. Client observers should be thoroughly briefed about the research objectives before the sessions start. Although most people who observe focus groups understand the process and have watched focus groups from behind the one-way mirror before, it helps to review the goals of the sessions beforehand to ensure that all the observers are in sync with the objectives and the desired output. This can help you avoid embarrassing last-minute surprises.
10. The most valuable service a moderator can provide is objective conclusions based on the interpretation of the research, without regard for what the client wants to hear. It is easier to give clients good news that confirms their beliefs, but it is a mistake to try to sugarcoat conclusions so the client is not disturbed with the outcome of the groups. A qualitative research consultant must offer clients total objectively and honesty in order to provide the expected quality of service and professionalism. This is one of the most important things a moderator can do for the client. It’s probably the only one in which the moderator has a unique position because the client personnel who attended the sessions have their own internal agendas for the research that affects their interpretation of the research results.
What are Focus Groups? And why we use them? Most people love to be asked their opinion and they're generally not shy about voicing it. A focus group is basically a way to reach out to your potential users for feedback and comment. Organizations generally use focus groups in planning, marketing, or evaluation, either to improve some specific product or service or, more globally, during the development of strategic plans or mission statements. In the context of CIMEL project, focus groups help evaluate usability of the interface and representative content. Focus groups answer questions that the development cannot resolve and can lead to new ideas. Specifically, the a focus group session concentrates on: • Gathering opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about issues of interest to your organization • Testing your assumptions • Encouraging discussion about a particular topic • Building excitement from spontaneous combination of participants' comments • Providing an opportunity to learn more about a topic or issue. We divide the activity of conducting a focus group into ‘three main phases’:
Before The Focus Group:
1. Define the purpose, i.e. objectives of the focus group This has to be clear and specific. The more defined the objective the easier the rest of the process. 2. Establish a timeline A focus group cannot be developed overnight. The planning has to start several weeks ahead of the actual session; experts say 6 to 8 weeks realistically. Make sure you have enough take time to identify the participants, develop and test the questions, locate a site, invite and follow up with participants, and gather the materials for the sessions. 3. Identify the participants • Determine how many participants you need and how many to invite.
• • •
Develop a list of key attributes to seek in participants based on the purpose of the focus group. Using the list of attributes, brainstorm about possible participants. Secure names and contact information, finalize the list, and send invitations.
Focus groups should consist of six to twelve participants. Fewer than six participants tends to limit the conversation, because there is not enough diversity to spark energy and creativity. A group larger than twelve gets to be unwieldy, and voices get lost. However, you should invite more, allowing for no-shows. 4. Generate the questions Because a focus group will last for little more than one or two hours, you will only have time for four to seven questions. You may to include one or two introductory or warm-up questions and then get to the more serious questions that get at the heart of the purpose. To be effective, focus group questions should be open-ended and move from the general to the specific. E.g., after asking the question, “What do you like about the user interface?” you might ask, “If you could build a new user interface from scratch, what would you put in to make a better one?” or “What would make the user interface more appealing to your peers?” or even more specific, “Do you have any suggestions about what the personae (faces)—what they should look like or what they should do?” • • • • Once you have a list of questions, look at your purpose statement again. Keep questions that are really important and that qualify for your purpose. Eliminate as many questions as possible. Rewrite the questions with good editing. Order the questions that will be comfortable for the participants, i.e. moving from general to specific.
5. Develop a script Generating questions is a prelude to developing a more detailed script for your focus group.
Plan on a one - to two -hour time frame. A minimum of one hour is recommended because the process requires some time for opening and closing remarks as well as at least one or two questions. Be cautious not to exceed two hours. There are three parts to a focus group script: 1. The opening is the time for the facilitator to welcome the group, introduce the purpose and context of the focus group, explain what a focus group is and how it will flow, and make the introductions. 2. The question section is where you ask the questions that you designed and tested in Step 4. 3. The closing section wraps up the focus group. This includes thanking the participants, giving them an opportunity and avenue for further input, telling them how the data will be used, and explaining when the larger process will be completed. 6. Select a facilitator A focus group facilitator should be able to deal tactfully with outspoken group members, keep the discussion on track, and make sure every participant is heard. The facilitator should be knowledgeable about the project. He or she can be a staff member, volunteer, or member of a committee or task force. Be wary of anything about the facilitator (or facilitators) that might make participants uncomfortable. For example, you may not want the organization's executive director to facilitate a staff focus group about a new performance appraisal system. 7. Choose the location You Need a setting which can accommodate the participants and where they would feel comfortable expressing their opinions. When choosing a location, ask these questions: • What message does the setting send? (Is it corporate, upscale, cozy, informal, sterile, inviting?) • Does the setting encourage conversation? • How will the setting affect the information gathered? Will the setting bias the information offered? • Can it comfortably accommodate nine to fifteen people (six to twelve
participants plus facilitators), where all can view each other? • Is it easily accessible? (Consider access for people with disabilities, safety, transportation, parking, etc.) Once decided, reserve the location if necessary. Example: Put a link or part of the CIMEL focus group script conducted in Spring 02.
Conduct The Focus Group:
It’s time to actually conduct the session! The materials you might need for the session are: Notepads and pencils Computer with presentation Flip chart or easel paper Focus group script List of participants Markers Masking tape Name tags Refreshments Watch or clock • The facilitator should arrive before the participants, set out the refreshments, and arrange the room so all participants can view one another -- U-shaped seating or all at one table is best. As participants arrive, the facilitator should set the tone for a comfortable, enjoyable discussion by welcoming them just as would any gracious host. Introduce yourself and the co-facilitator, if used. Explain the means to record the session. Make sure you record the session! Carry out the focus group as per the plan and script. The facilitator should have some room for spontaneity, i.e., asking spontaneous questions that arise from the discussion, probing deeper into a topic. Attention to the following items will help ensure success:
• • • • •
1. Set the tone; participants should have fun and feel good about the session. 2. Make sure every participant is heard; draw out quieter group members. 3. Get full answers (not just "we need more money" but "we need more money to hire a receptionist to answer phones"). 4. Monitor time closely; don’t exceed time limits. 5. Keep the discussion on track; try to answer all or most of the questions. 6. Head off exchanges of opinion about individual items.
After the Focus Group:
Make any notes on your written notes, e.g., to clarify any scratching, ensure pages are numbered, fill out any notes that don't make senses, etc. Interpret and Report the Results: There are three steps to creating a report on your focus group: 1. Summarize each meeting. The facilitator should review the session with another person to capture fresh impressions. Finally, transcribe notes that were taken soon after the session is over and write a summary of the focus group. The quick turnaround time on the transcription helps avoid memory lapses. It's easiest for the facilitator or recorder to remember what was meant by a particular acronym or shorthand immediately following the session than it is a month later. 2. Analyze the summaries. Start by reading all the focus group summaries in one sitting. Look for trends (comments that seem to appear repeatedly in the data) and surprises (unexpected comments that are worth noting). Keep in mind that context and tone are just as important as the reiteration of particular words. If a comment (or a number of comments) seemed to be phrased negatively, elicited emotional responses, or triggered many other comments, that would be worth noting in the analysis. 3. Write the report. The final report can take many different shapes, but it should include all information about the background and purpose of the focus group, details of the sessions, results, and conclusions. One focus group report developed for the CIMEL project is at http://www.cse.lehigh.edu/~cimel/eval/Alpha/FocusGroupReports.doc. You may also want to use web-based surveys as a way to gather information from users; this has the advantage of providing information that is more quantifiable, but has the disadvantage of generating less discussion. An
example of a survey is available at http://www.cse.lehigh.edu/~cimel/eval/beta/EvalBeta.htm and the results are dynamically generated at http://www.cse.lehigh.edu/~cimel/eval/beta/ResultsByQuestion.htm. CIMEL researchers can generate comparable surveys and results easily. The results of surveys can be combined with a focus group report, or described separately. Now this report now ready for ‘translation into action’. Note that the researchers might be different from the people who organized the focus group, but they need to be aware of the focus group report in order for implementation of major issues that have been brought to attention by the group. Example: Put a sample report link or part of it here. Here are some suggestions for translating the results into action: • Schedule a meeting to review the summaries and discuss their implications. • Put the focus group information in context. Refer to your purpose statement and analyze the answers or insights the focus groups gave you. Compare, contrast, and combine the focus group information with information gathered from other sources such as surveys, interviews, or secondary research sources. • Highlight the main themes, issues, problems, or questions that arose in the focus groups. Discuss and record how you will address these. • If there is a lot of information, prioritize it. Then decide what actions need to be taken with regard to the priority items. Sources: Judith Sharken Simon, How To Conduct A Focus Group http://www.tgci.com/publications/99fall/conductfocusgp.html (primary) Carter McNamara, Basics of Conducting Focus Groups http://www.mapnp.org/library/evaluatn/focusgrp.htm#anchor911239 The Small Schools Project, Conducting Focus Groups http://www.smallschoolsproject.org/tools/files/focusgroups.PDF
It can be hard to break away from groupthink. A lack of creative, diverse thinking can lead to rash business decisions. Focus groups are a good way to avoid this. They are a form of analysis where people can voice attitudes or feelings toward certain projects, services or products. Running a focus group allows you the chance to possibly predict how your target market will react. How to Set up a Focus Group
You need to know your target market and identify participants within this market. Screening potential individuals to ensure accurate candidacy is a good idea. A moderator for the focus group should be assigned. They are there not to run the conversation, but to help it move along. Having a list of goals or topics to discuss can be a helpful tool for a focused conversation. A good moderator will pull new open-ended questions from the information communicated and keep the discussion flowing. It is helpful if they are someone from outside of the project, whether it is a person from a different department of the company, or a hired professional. This way no biased opinions or results will occur. Finding a good location is also key. Choose something with easy access that will encourage individuals to come. In addition, group members should feel comfortable in their setting; it makes sharing and contributing thoughts easier.
Tips to Remember Even though the structure is to be an informal discussion, it can never hurt to plan in advance. Location, needed equipment, and any compensation should be considered well in advance for the meeting. Most small focus groups will have anywhere between five and 12 participants. Contact the potential group members before the session to confirm there is still interest to participate. A phone confirmation does not ensure their participation; if you desire to have a certain number individuals present, it does not hurt to have more candidates than required. Recording the session will help your team remember key points. A moderator, or any invited observers, will not be able to record every detail. Using a tape or video recorder will also provide insight on tone of voice or facial expressions. Holding more than one session will increase the success of achieving your goal of understanding your market and what they desire from your product or service. Repeated ideas or criticisms will begin to surface, which makes the information more reliable and accurate.
Listen to the results of the group. If there are negative findings, it does not mean you need to scrap the project. It gives you a chance to improve the project, or keeps you from losing money and time in the long run. Amy Bax is interested in providing innovative informational resources to entrepreneurs. She is currently an MBA student at the University of Missouri - Columbia.
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